It’s amazing that choreographer Debbie Allen’s starry Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—the first all-black version—can have so much plain wrong with it, yet still delight me. But consider this: No great playwright ever wrote so badly and so beautifully within the same play as Tennessee Williams (unless it was Eugene O’Neill).
I love Williams in spite of his flaws and because of them. He’s our poet of tender mercies who put onstage the large, damaged hearts of the dispossessed. His notoriously overheated dramas, saturated with sex and desire, preoccupied with sin and purity, contain emotions writ large. Who else but Williams would invent a character both as coarse and lyrical as Maggie the cat? And who else would have her speak these elegant lines in the Act I showdown with her drunk, indifferent husband, Brick, whom she describes as possessing “the charm of the defeated”?
“They’re playing croquet. The moon has appeared and it’s white, just beginning to turn a little bit yellow,” she says to him, and drifts into another unexpected thought. “You were a wonderful lover. … Such a wonderful person to go to bed with, and I think mostly because you were really indifferent to it. Isn’t that right? Never had any anxiety about it, did it naturally, easily, slowly, with absolute confidence and perfect calm, more like opening a door for a lady or seating her at a table than giving expression to any longing for her. Your indifference made you wonderful at lovemaking—strange?—but true. …”
Harold Clurman wrote admiringly of Williams after he first burst on the scene in the 1940’s with The Glass Menagerie: “He has no doctrine, unless it be the need for compassion.” John Osborne, whose Look Back in Anger (1956) owes a debt to A Streetcar Named Desire (1948), was the first British playwright to acknowledge the extraordinary humanity of Williams in an era when emotion was repressed on the London stage. In a ringing declaration of the poetic power of drama, Osborne memorably declared that Williams’ enduring plays of private fires and public tragedy are “worth a thousand statements of a thousand politicians.”
And in all this is found the dark, wry ironies of Tennessee Williams’ unmistakable Southerness. “Mr. Williams, would you please give us your definition of happiness?” a journalist asked him. He leaned back, rolled his eyes and replied, “Insensitivity, I guess.”
THE THREE ACTS of the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) are arias about illusion and lies, and each outstanding act is a showdown. The first between sexually frustrated Maggie and the wracked, latent-homosexual Brick; the second act between Big Daddy, who thinks he’s beaten cancer, and the confessional Brick (“Have you ever heard the word ‘mendacity’?”); and the third the resolution and battle over who inherits the 28,000-acre Mississippi estate.
“Oh, you weak people—you weak beautiful people!—who give up with such grace,” go Maggie’s memorable last lines to Brick. “What you want is someone to take hold of you. Gently, gently with love, hand your life back to you, like somethin’ gold you let go of.”
Anika Noni Rose is a wonderful Maggie. You might remember Ms. Rose’s breakthrough role in the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical Caroline, or Change (2003)—since followed by more traditional stardom in Dreamgirls. Ms. Rose is young and sexy and unafraid. She’s a stage natural whose innate musicality serves her very well as Maggie, with lines—according to Williams’ ornate stage directions—that are meant to be “almost sung, always continuing a little beyond her breath so she has to gasp for another.”
Ms. Rose doesn’t exactly gasp; she races and electrifies in a necessary tour de force. The play stands or falls on Maggie’s complete domination of the entire opening act in her near-monologue, with the silent Brick laid up with a broken leg on the white pillowy bed, or hobbling on a crutch to the bar for the solace of oblivion.
Williams famously wrote great roles for women, but it’s often overlooked how intelligent his women are. “When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don’t work,” Maggie tells Brick. “It’s just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. But not facing a fire doesn’t put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant.”
“Give me my crutch,” Brick demands.
“Lean on me,” she begs.
Ms. Rose hits all the right notes—save for an unavoidable one. As an actress, she can’t help herself: She’s gloriously alive in all she does (as Maggie declares herself to be). She’s unable to convey Maggie’s “anxious lines on her face” (as Williams describes her). But it doesn’t spoil things. Ms. Rose is giving a fantastic performance.
Terrence Howard’s fallen golden boy is the most broken and uncompromisingly drunk portrait of Brick I’ve seen. Mr. Howard is, of course, the handsome Hollywood star of Crash, and when we first glimpsed him onstage at the Broadhurst Theatre taking a shower behind a transparent curtain, the screams from the balcony seemed only right. But he’s made a remarkable, chancy contribution as Brick—the more so when one realizes that this is his stage debut.
Mr. Howard captures the self-loathing misery of Brick’s fatal duality of body and soul. This is a portrait of someone who had it all, now committing suicide publicly. It’s the fragility of lives, and loves unfulfilled and found disgusting that goes to the heart of Mr. Howard’s touching performance. Some might consider him too vulnerable and weak as Brick, particularly as he’s playing opposite the magnificent James Earl Jones as Big Daddy—a legendary actor playing a mythic role. But it’s the beloved Mr. Jones who restrains Big Daddy’s bullying, animalistic fury, and ultimately sentimentalizes the central “mendacity” scene.
Still, it’s always a pleasure to see James Earl Jones onstage. If you ever experience in a theater the wave of love for an actor that he received on his entrance, you’ll count yourself lucky. The great man, majestically preceded onstage by his paunch and cigar, was greeted with an ovation. And how good it was to hear his baritone voice delivering Williams’ cruder lines as he wrote them (not as the original director Elia Kazan censored them, to suit more theatrically sensitive days). The director of this production, Debbie Allen, has returned to Williams’ original text like a Shakespeare scholar to the First Folio. Big Daddy doesn’t say “ducking” any more. “Fuck the goddamn preacher!” Mr. Jones booms with such relish that he brings down the house. One forgets how funny the play can be, if they let it.
But how funny, and how broad, should it be? Big Daddy’s 65th birthday scene has always been a potential riot with those dreadful, singing short-necked grandchildren of his—and it’s never been funnier than it is in Ms. Allen’s exuberant staging. As far as I know, this is her first stage production as a director, and she makes a number of elementary mistakes.
No matter that the ambitious idea of an all-blac
k cast performing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an obvious contradiction in terms. (In the Mississippi of the 1950’s, it had to be rich white folk who owned a palatial plantation.) What’s weirdly wonderful is that the concept works. Not so wonderful is the re-setting of the play in some vaguely contemporary time zone, or the broad acting as a whole (including Ms. Allen’s sister, Phylicia Rashad, as Big Mama), or the assists the director needlessly gives the play by melodramatically dimming the lights during three big solo speeches.
On the other hand, if you catch Mark Morris’ new version of Purcell’s 17th-century opera, King Arthur, you’ll see no time zone anyone can pin down or any consistent costume style—except for the one known as camp. And if you take in any Shakespeare in the Park starring Liev Schreiber, you’ll invariably see the lights dim as Mr. Schreiber delivers his soliloquies in a spotlight.
But those productions are called Art, and Debbie Allen’s isn’t. For me, she has produced a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that, for all its flaws and rough edges, is a winning example of truly popular theater. “I’m trying to capture,” Williams wrote in the script, “the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.”
In many ways—some as theatrically blatant as that thundercloud—Debbie Allen has come close to Tennessee Williams’ intentions.